The term cattle count describes a very important economic event in ancient Egypt. It was controlled by the king (i.e. the pharaoh) and his officials, and was connected to several cultic feasts. The cattle count was one of the two main means of evaluating the amount of taxes to be levied, the other one being the height of the annual inundation.
Process and purpose
To perform the cattle count, all cattles (including productive livestock such as cows and oxen, sheep, pigs, goats and donkeys) were rounded up and counted. Following the count, the percentage of cattles to be taxed by the state would be calculated. The cattle count was performed in every nomes of Egypt. Frauds were harshly punished. From the 2nd dynasty onwards, the cattle count was connected with the "Following of Horus" (Egypt. Shemsu Hor) which occurred every two years. The Shemsu Hor consisted of a journey by the king and his court throughout Egypt which facilitated the assessment and levying of taxes by the central administration.
The cattle count is of great importance to Egyptologists and historians, because many inscriptions report the year of the x-th occasion of the cattle count followed by the name of a pharaoh. Thus these inscriptions are used to assess the minimum duration of the reign of the pharaoh, for example assuming that the cattle count was held every two years. This last point being of paramount importance for correct datation of reign lengths, it is highly disputed up to this day. According to the Palermo stone, a black basalt stone slab recording the yearly events of cultic and religious nature from king Narmer (1st dynasty) down to king Neferirkare Kakai (3rd pharaoh of the 5th dynasty), the cattle count was performed every second year until the late Old Kingdom. After this period, however, it was performed yearly. The first pharaoh during whose reign yearly cattles counts are known for sure to have taken place is king Pepy I of the 6th dynasty. This does not exclude that the cattle count necessarily took place every second year before Pepi I.
An example of conflicting evaluations for a reign duration via cattle count is the case of king Khufu (4th dynasty). The highest known numbers of cattle counts under Khufu are found in workmen's graffiti inside the relieving chambers of the Khufu pyramid. The ink inscription reports the "17th occasion of the cattle count". Since the Palermo stone inscriptions hold that the cattle count was performed every second year during the 4th dynasty, it would prove that Khufu ruled at least 34 years. This calculation is rejected by several Egyptologists, because another ancient Egyptian source, the Turin canon, credits Khufu with a reign of merely 23 years. At the opposite, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus claims that Khufu ruled for 50 years, which is now seen as an exaggeration. Meanwhile, today Egyptologists such as Thomas Schneider assume that either Khufu indeed ruled for a little over 34 years, or that the author of the Turin canon simply did not take into account the 2-year-cycle of cattle counts and in fact credits Khufu with 23 cattle counts, which is a reign of 46 years.
- Hermann A. Schlögl: Das Alte Ägypten (= Beck'sche Reihe, Band 2305). C.H. Beck, Hamburg 2011 (3. Ausgabe), ISBN 3406623107, p. 41.
- Richard A. Parker: The calendars of ancient Egypt (= Studies in ancient Oriental Civilization. Vol. 26, ISSN 0081-7554). University of Chicago Press, Chicago IL 1950.
- Toby Wilkinson: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition, ISBN 0553384902
- Siegfried Schott: Altägyptische Festdaten (= Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur. Abhandlungen der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse. Bd. 10, 1950, ISSN 0002-2977). Verlag der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz u. a. 1950.
- Thomas Schneider: Lexikon der Pharaonen. Albatros, Düsseldorf 2002, ISBN 3-491-96053-3, p. 100–102.